I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Ayn Rand

by Rheinheart Benjamin
March 14, 2011

It might not be very charitable to say that this interview catches Ayn Rand at the nadir of her intellectual powers, but that's how it comes off.  Filmed within three years of her death and close on the heels of the death of her husband, this segment has Rand appearing almost grandmotherly; sanguine in suffering small-talk as the interview opens, then strident only out of concern that her audience appreciate and work to extend the perquisites of being American.  The studio audience’s periodic applause, the camera cuts to attentive, ruddy-faced females in the audience, the too-soft, too-forgiving camera focus on everything – the whole program seems calculated to rub anyone with Randian predispositions thoroughly the wrong way.  When Rand delivers the line “in this country, the poorest person, the most handicapped person, is better off than in almost any other country,” she sounds eerily like the stereotypical immigrant matriarch making a last effort to instill correct values and perspective in the next generation.  When Phil Donahue reaches for her hand less than 20 minutes into the interview, the thickly gelled camera lens seems barely to register her revulsion.  This, surely, is not the Ayn Rand we all came here to see.

That legendary Ayn Rand, with her almost superhuman asperity, would have turned Donahue into an ashtray (she loved to smoke), or at least reduced him to nothing more than a thick plastic-framed lens to focus our attention on whatever she wished to use the airtime to discuss.  This is, after all, a woman whose final novel, Atlas Shrugged, included a 70-page soliloquy for its supreme hero, John Galt. She's not exactly the sort of personality who would normally play along with a question like “How do you suppose we got into this phony-baloney stuff,” nor one about whether you can really get to know people by watching them on TV. 

In death, safe from such indignities, however, the financial crisis of the late Naughts has afforded Ayn Rand a bit of a moment.  In January 2009, a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Steven Moore trumpeted the eerie similarity of recent financial bailouts to the plotline of Atlas Shrugged, and opined that “If only ‘Atlas’ were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I'm confident that we'd get out of the current financial mess a lot faster.”[1]  Moore’s poor punctuation aside, his piece had an impact, causing late January sales of Atlas to spike to three times that of the year before.  This surge itself was then heralded by the Ayn Rand Center and picked up by media outlets everywhere, from the Gawker and Freakonomics Blog to the New York Times and The Economist.[2]  2009 also saw the timely publication of the first two academic biographies of Ayn Rand, cementing a popular resurgence that was fueled, inter alia, by incessant hype from Glenn Beck on Fox News and a dedicated episode of John Stossel’s show on Fox Business Channel.  None of this is to say that Rand’s works previously lacked influence – Rand’s novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead top the Modern Library’s oft-cited Reader’s Poll of the 100 Best Novels, conducted in 1998, and a 1991 Library of Congress survey of the most influential books published in the United States placed it second only to the Holy Bible –  But there is clearly something in Rand’s message that has made her even more appealing in recent years.

Ostensibly born as reaction to the experience of her bourgeois family in Soviet Russia and cultured in the salons she held with thinkers like Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig von Mises and Isabel Paterson in midtown Manhattan, Rand’s central philosophy of justice has considerable depth.  Like John Locke and Robert Nozick, Rand held that the justice or injustice of a given economic state of affairs is a relatively simple function of the justice or injustice of the methods by which it came about.  It’s a transaction-based view: if fraud, theft, or other properly criminal actions were involved in gaining wealth or position, this gain is unjustified. If not, not.  Facts about distributional effects are completely irrelevant: such effects have the power neither to call into question otherwise legitimate transactions or actors, nor to redeem properly criminal ones.  This stand would seem to recommend each of these thinkers as good artillery in a whole host of public political battles: against the estate tax, the progressivity of taxes in general, and demands for bonus clawbacks, against critics who point to the United States’ relatively high inequality and low economic mobility, and against even more pointed, Robin Hood-inspired rhetoric about the need to sharply increase the progressivity of the US tax code.

The main gulf between Rand and thinkers like Nozick or Friedrich Hayek is that the latter explicitly disavow the idea that the distribution of wealth that results from the functioning of a free market should be interpreted as a moral verdict in favor of those who become wealthy and against those who end up poor.  All three agree that it is deeply unjust to substantially deprive someone of what they have gained for themselves, unless it was gained by an act that is or should be criminal, but Rand is alone among them in saying that we should look to a person’s productivity, best measured by their ability to make money, to judge the measure of a man.  It’s an avowedly Aristotelian view: prima facie, those who make money without committing criminal acts are virtuous, because it is the nature of money and free markets that they tend to flow towards productive virtuous people.  Rand certainly countenances exceptions to this rule, but identifies them explicitly as anomalies or perversions of the money, markets, or virtue involved. 

This is the force behind the much-dog-eared ‘money speech’ from Atlas Shrugged, which identifies money as “the root of all good” and “the barometer of a society’s virtue,” as well as Rand’s suitability to the flamethrower wars of TV politics. One gets the sense from listening to Rand and her fictional heroes that the titans of business and industry are due their income, wealth and social position not just for what they do but for what they are.  She doesn’t stop at making the case that one needs, as a practical matter, to pay CEOs huge salaries, she strives to convince us that one ought to, or pay them even more than we do now, and that it is actually they who are bearing all the rest of us on their shoulders.  For this clarity and asperity of vision if for nothing else, Rand is worth listening to, even if we don’t end up siding with the CEOs and even if in this video, we see a moment of unintentional softness. 

She’s still pretty prickly.

[2] http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/what-caused-atlas-shrugged-sales-to-soar/ has a graph of sales and links to the WSJ story and some of the media coverage of the spike.



Rheinheart Benjamin is neither a titan of business nor a captain of industry, but is acquisitive enough to have twice as many household furnishings as can reasonably fit in his domicile.  He was once a philosophy major and currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts, on twitter, facebook, and other social media.